Trilateral Partnership and Asia Pacific Strategic Landscape

by Tayyaba Khurshid

The global geopolitical and economic competition has sharpened in the Asia Pacific due to the conflicting strategic interests of two global superpowers, the United States and China. China’s rise has been apprehended by US policymakers as a threat to their national interests in the region. The United States shifted its focus to Asia during the Obama administration with the introduction of its ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy. Following on his predecessor’s footsteps more aggressively, the Trump administration adopted a confrontational stance towards China and initiated a trade war aimed at limiting China’s growth in technology and economic sectors.  Extending this policy of containing China, the present Biden administration has presented China as a “threat” in its National Security Strategy.

To contain China, the United States has focused on building security alliances with allies and partners in the Asia Pacific region by adopting an integrated deterrence approach . Interests have diverged between the two global powers over US support for Taiwan, a self-ruled province considered as a breakaway part by Beijing with plans to eventually merge it into mainland China.  The US’ direct and indirect criticism of China’s political system and efforts to change it, and its fresh attempts to dictate the norms of Asia Pacific region have further strained the bilateral ties. In response to US militarization of the region, China, too, has grown assertive and responsive to deal with issues of disputed islands militarily Chinese capabilities have grown at a much faster pace. From a strategic rival to a direct strategic competitor, China’s rise has opened the ways for a new multipolar world heralding a gradual end of the US hegemony.

To counter China geopolitically, a recent historic event aimed took place at Camp David where leaders of South Korea, Japan and the United States met for a trilateral alliance in August 2023.

The US has encouraged both Japan and South Korea to sideline their historical animosity and cooperate with each other to create a strong trilateral alliance. Both South Korea and Japan have engaged diplomatically to resolve their historical issues since Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart President Yoon Suk-yeol came to office. President Biden appreciated their efforts to resolve issues and amid thawing relations between South Korea and Japan, he hailed the opportunity to start a new chapter in their relationship. It was a great diplomatic triumph for the Biden administration to bring together Japan and South Korea who shared a history of mistrust and animosity since the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945. The trilateral summit was also historic as it marked the first official meeting between the leaders of three states. The US allies and partners see China as an assertive player and North Korea’s string of missile tests as a threat to the strategic stability of Asia Pacific. These concerns have brought the two Asia Pacific States to resolve issues and collaborate with the US for a comprehensive security infrastructure to deal with China and North Korea’s assertiveness.

The three states aim to initiate a new era of cooperation with a resolve that serve as a source of good across Asia Pacific region. The United States had enjoyed bilateral alliance with both states separately and both states host nearly  84,500 US troops on their soil collectively. The US policy of Asia Pacific has focused on bringing the states in its own orbit and sphere of influence that have issues with China. The major reason that South Korea went on to normalize its ties with Japan was due to economic coercion adopted by China against South Korea.

The troika has collectively condemned the actions of China and North Korea and pledged to further deepen their cooperation in various sectors. They also agreed to create a hotline communication channel to establish direct communication in case of an emergency to avoid a crisis situation by sharing real time data on China and North Korea missile launches. The three will conduct joint military exercises in Asia Pacific landscape to strengthen their military cooperation.

The development is taking place to institutionalize a sort of trilateral alliance for future trajectory of the three states that any possible change in leadership or intention of the leader should not allow to alter the positive steps taken by the three leaders. After this, the three states will hold annual trilateral meetings among government agencies to resolve their issues amicably. In a joint statement the three states expressed their determination to “uphold regional security, strengthen Indo-pacific engagement and promote common prosperity”. They also condemned and called China’s behavior as dangerous and aggressive in the South China Sea and North Korean nuclear program.

Implications for Asia Pacific Strategic landscape

The trilateral alliance comprising Japan, South Korea, and the United States will have significant implications on the evolving landscape of the Asia Pacific region, particularly concerning China’s increasing dominance in the economic and military domain. The alliance has been interpreted as a strategic countermeasure in response to China’s growing assertiveness and sway within the region. Although the US state department in a statement said that the meeting was not provocative to Beijing, however China has shown deep concerns over the meeting. In response to a question about the trilateral cooperation, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the Asia-Pacific region “should never be turned into a wrestling ground for geopolitical competition”. Adding further, spokesperson for China’s Washington embassy, Liu Pengyu said, “Attempts to cobble together various exclusionary groupings and bring bloc confrontation and military blocs into the Asia-Pacific are not going to get support and will only be met with vigilance and opposition from regional countries.”

However, the formation of such an alliance can result in disturbing the already tenuous strategic stability of Asia Pacific. As indicated by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in his statement that ‘any provocations or attacks against any one of our three countries will trigger a decision making process of this trilateral framework and our solidarity will become even stronger and harder.’ From China’s perspective, it might engender a sense of encirclement or containment, potentially fueling a perceived threat and prompting more vigorous efforts to safeguard its interests. This, in turn, could heighten the risks of inadvertent conflicts due to misunderstandings or misinterpretations of intent. China has previously warned of increased tension and confrontation in the region  amidst US efforts to deepen ties with the two Asia Pacific states. China also seeks to strengthen ties with South Korea and Japan and has remained involved with the duo in carving out a tri-lateral alliance mainly focused on non-traditional security issues. Previously at the trilateral cooperation secretariat, Wang Yi, Chinese Foreign Minister, expressed his desire to foster a sense of strategic autonomy, maintain regional unity and stability, resist the return of the Cold War mentality, and be free from the coercion of bullying and domination, and called on regrouping.

The trilateral alliance can disturb the regional equilibrium and potentially rule out any possibility of cooperation between China, South Korea and Japan. There are already  apprehensions over the thaw between South Korea and Japan in view of less encouragement of such an initiative from the South Korean public, National Assembly and other important government institutions. In essence, the envisaged trilateral alliance between Japan, South Korea, and the United States to counterbalance China’s rise would spark intraregional tensions, let alone succeed in containing China.

The US attempts to contain China through forming security alliances like Quad, AUKUS and other bilateral and multilateral security pacts with regional states increase the threat perception of China, resulting in threat escalation and prompting China’s military buildup in response to counter the lurking danger. It is necessary that the two superpowers resolve their issues in Asia Pacific through diplomatic engagements as a protracted conflict serves no ones interests.

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Center for International Strategic Studies AJK, King Abdullah Campus Chatter kalas Muzaffarabad, Azad Jammu and Kashmir